The attacks in Paris last Friday sent ripples of shock though Western media outlets, social and otherwise, and elicited an tremendous collective outpouring of grief. Yet, as many were quick to note, this response stood in stark contrast to reactions to similar attacks in other parts of the world, like those occurring only days before in Beirut and Iraq. Yet, these divergent responses are hardly surprising. For those accustomed to the promise of invulnerability bestowed upon people with white skin, the Paris attacks were fundamentally different. What was shocking about this attack was that suddenly, like so many others are forced to contend with on a daily basis, the unmarked Western subject was forced to grapple with its own precarity, the vulnerable condition of having a body upon which violence can be inflicted.
At its best, the shock of recognizing one’s own precarity in the face of violence served as a moment to recognize the vulnerability and fragility of the human condition itself. Many people responded in a manner that illustrated that, for them, this shock opened up the possibility of empathy not just for the Parisian victims but for all who live with constant reminders of their vulnerable and precarious corporeal existence. These responses did not dismiss the grief felt for those who lost their lives in Paris, but neither did they limit it. Empathy and compassion was extended not only to those in Paris, but within and beyond the borders, to those in Beirut, Iraq, to refugees and many others.
However, this transformation of the shock of the attack into moments of reflection on our own fragility and empathy for others is far from prevalent. Instead the general response has been an immediate mobilization of the shock to establish a state of exception and emergency. Rather than than the path of reflection and empathy, it is response to the shock of human fragility that manifests itself as a desperate scramble to immediately re-establish a sense of security and invulnerability for western subjects. The first act taken in this state of exception was to close borders, both territorially and conceptually. At once, François Holland put an end to the movement of bodies in and out of France with his decision to close the borders. However, it was not just bodies that had to be immobilized and contained, but grief and thought itself.
To examine the bordering of grief I turn to the action of social media platforms. I turn to social media because, as means by which many people express themselves to each other digitally, these platforms are incredibly powerful spaces in which people construct their own ethical subjectivities. In the wake of the attacks, Facebook offered it’s users the ability to overlay a french flag on their profile picture. In effect, they incited us to grieve but only within a particular national frame. There message was this: “Make your grief visible, show your friends you care for the suffering of the French Nation”. Excluded from this automatic grief were all those who never belonged to the French, the refugees within it or the people suffering beyond it.
This enticement of users to transform their response to the attacks into a visible mark of allegiance with the French nation-state illustrates the intersections between operations of power and capital. Facebook sought, like the conventional media, to capitalize and affirm the spectacular nature of the attacks through it’s incitement to produce relevant content. This content, in capturing our peers attention, could then be transformed into a commodity to be sold to advertisers. Yet, Facebook was enticing us not just to produce content but also a certain ethical subjectivity through the imposition of a certain visible regime of grief. By rendering impossible our ability to grieve beyond a distinctly bordered and national frame, Facebook sought to limit and immobilize the expressions of grief that threatened to transcend the rigid boundaries of national belonging.
This transformation of grief into an automatic process, the clicking of a button to change a profile picture rather than the more demanding task of reflecting upon this grief, also illustrates how the state of emergency and exception functioned to suspend thought. This hostility of thought was perhaps most clearly articulated in the descriptions, which littered the speeches of countless pundits and politicians, of the attacks as being “senseless” and “unthinkable”. These adjectives served not as a moment of reflective description of the attacks but as an injunction against thought itself. The attacks were not to be understood, but rather ascribed to an inscrutable enemy upon whom war could be waged.
The mobilization of this moment of shock for a military operation against an inscrutable enemy, one to be conducted without thought or reflection, was powerfully at work in an essay published on Vice by the so-called “terrorism expert” John Horgan. Entitled "Don't Ask Why People Join the Islamic State — Ask How”, this article argues that because the reasons which motivate people to become “terrorists” are "numerous and overlapping” and subject to change. In the face of this “very complicated issue” of motivation, we should not even attempt to ask the (“probably unanswerable”) question of why “terrorists” are motivated to committed such attacks but rather ask how they commit the attacks. The figure of the “terrorist” is thus, like the violence itself, rendered impervious to thought - to even try would be dangerous.
This immobilization of grief, suspension of thought and assertion of territorial control speaks to a fundamentally different way of grappling with precarity than that of empathy: not a recognition of a common experience of having vulnerable bodies but a desperate scramble to immediately re-establish a sense of security and invulnerability.
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